Divrei Torah BlogsReligionYom Kippur

Yom Kippur Among the Dying

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most awesome and powerful day on the Jewish calendar, is said to be a rehearsal for death.

We wear a plain white kittle, a gown reminiscent of the tachrichin, the shrouds in which a traditional Jew is buried.  We do not eat or drink, just as the dead do not eat or drink.  We spend the entire holiday, 25 hours, in prayer (less breaks for sleep), the most powerful prayers the Jewish tradition has to offer, prayers of life and death, prayers of shattered hearts, praying to be forgiven for the many sins we have, praying that will be sealed in the book of life, not, God forbid, the book of death.

This year I spent Yom Kippur in a hospice.  There’s nothing that will intensify your prayers about life and death than to recite them in a building filled with the dying.  Especially when one of the patients in the hospice is your own mother.

My mother’s health took a turn for the worse a few days before Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur this year was on Shabbat, Friday night to Saturday night.  My mother went into the hospital about a week before Yom Kippur.  She had all sorts of difficult symptoms, and it wasn’t clear whether it was a response to the chemotherapy, or a direct effect of the cancer, or a combination.  Tuesday night Jerusalem time I participated by speakerphone in a conference with the hospital’s palliative care team.  We discussed my Mom’s medical situation (not good) and the kind of care she would receive if she switched to hospice, whether as an in-patient or out-patient.  Wednesday night we had another speakerphone conference, this time with the doctor who was caring for her.  Chemo did not seem to helping anymore, and she wasn’t strong enough for it any event.  She had not been eating, and did not want artificial nutrition and more tubes and more pain.  The prognosis was the end was going to come within weeks, if not sooner.

After the call, I was a wreck.  It was Wednesday night; Yom Kippur was two days away.  I knew I was going to need to go to Denver.  I was debating whether I should leave immediately or wait until after Yom Kippur, so I could spend the holiday with my family in Jerusalem (after all, at the end of every Yom Kippur service, we say “Next year in Jerusalem!”).  I also had some things from work hanging over my head that I needed to deal with on the day after Yom Kippur.  My ever wise wife said “What are you waiting for?  What’s more important?”  She was, as usual, correct.  I immediately booked a flight for as soon as I could go – 5:30 the following morning, meaning the cab would pick me up at 2:30.  I scrambled to get some dinner, pack, sleep for three hours and get on the road.  Buying tickets last minute (I used up all my frequent flier miles on my kids) often means somewhat roundabout routings if you need to worry about money.  Tel Aviv-Vienna-Frankfurt-Denver is definitely not the most direct way to go, but despite one of the flights being delayed, I arrived in Denver by Thursday late afternoon.

I went straight to the hospice to visit my Mom.  We were planning to take her home Friday morning if she was up to it.  Friday morning came around, and unfortunately due to the need for frequent nursing care to manage her symptoms, she was not going to be going home. She was going to be in the hospice over Yom Kippur; and I was clearly going to stay there with her.  Even if I wanted to leave for services, the nearest synagogue was too far away to walk to when fasting.  I was going to be doing my praying in the hospice.

I called a rabbinic colleague in town and borrowed some machzors (High Holiday prayerbooks) and a shofar (to blow at Neilah, at the end of the holiday).  I let the hospice staff know I was going to hold Kol Nidre services in the chapel that night, and if there were any other Jewish patients or family around they would be welcome to attend. As it turned out, there weren’t any other Jewish families in the hospice at the moment, and the Jewish staff of course took the day off, so the service was just for my family and friends; and most of the people who came weren’t Jewish.

I made a couple of “halachic compromises” with the service; hopefully God forgave me.  At no point did we have a minyan, and there are many prayers that you don’t say without a minyan.  Kol Nidrei, the ceremony that starts Yom Kippur is performed with the Torahs taken out of the ark, and in theory you should have at least three Jews as a “beit din.”  I started the service with Kol Nidre despite not having any Torahs, and at that point not even having 3 Jews present (my two oldest daughters didn’t arrive from the airport until after Kol Nidrei time).  I had a great spiritual need to hear the melody of Kol Nidrei – somehow it’s just not Yom Kippur without it.  I don’t believe the Kol Nidrei vow nullification is effective at all.  It does not meet any of the halachic requirements for a procedure for annulling vows (which is why some of the rabbis changed it to future tense, which to me is still problematic).  So I don’t believe the ceremony has any practical halachic significance, but it has great spiritual significance as part of the ceremonial “starting the year with a clean slate.”

My other “halachic compromise” was a perhaps a little more problematic halachically: I recited the Barchu without a minyan.  You are supposed to have a minyan when you say the Barchu, because it is the “call to prayer” for the “public” and public is defined as ten Jews.  Spiritually it was like the Kol Nidrei for me – I needed to hear that melody, and I viewed it as a call to everyone who was there to join in prayer, whatever inadequate number we were.

I did follow all the other restrictions of not having a minyan, i.e., we did not say kaddish, and we didn’t do any of the repetitions of the Amidah, etc.  All of which certainly makes the service a lot shorter!

Kol Nidrei was only “average” on the “spirituality” scale for me – I think I had been doing so much running around to get things organized, had so much on my mind with my Mom, etc., that my focus wasn’t quite there yet.  But the family appreciated it, and they really liked the new Machzor we were using, Lev Shalem; several people found passages they wanted to copy and keep.

I slept on an air mattress in my Mom’s room.  I woke up early in the morning, before 6.  That was always a favorite time of day for my Mom and me.  We are both morning people.  Whenever I would come to Denver, I’d stay with her, we’d both be awake by 5:30 or 6:00, and sit out on her lovely balcony with her garden and fountain, and drink coffee watching the sun rise.  Yom Kippur morning I sat by her bedside and held her hand and cried thinking about how we really should be sitting on her balcony drinking coffee, not in a hospice with her preparing to leave this world for the next.

Around 7, I went to the chapel and started reciting the Yom Kippur morning liturgy by myself.  Alone in the chapel, wearing my kittle and tallis, just me and a prayerbook standing in the awesome presence of God on the most awesome and scary day of the year.  Very early in my prayers I came to the line in Psalm 51 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a shattered and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  And I lost it.  Tears came down my face as I thought of being in a hospice, not being with my Mom on her balcony for our early morning ritual.  I cried out to God, “Is my heart sufficiently shattered, Lord?  Is my spirit sufficiently broken?”

As I went through the prayers there were many lines that jumped out at me with a new urgency: “The days of our years are seventy; or if, because of strength, they are eighty years, yet their pride is but trouble and wretchedness; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”  My Mom was 74.

At the end of the central prayer of the service, the Amidah – after beating my breast and reciting the communal sins, beating my breast a little harder for the sins I knew I had personally committed I had one of the most powerful prayer experiences of my life. At the end of the Amidah, as advised by the Talmud, I always add a personal prayer, in my own words, and my words and prayers came spilling out of me, uncontrolled, in a great torrent of confused emotion, with many tears, I didn’t even know what to pray for: “Oh God, please let her live…but she’s in hospice it’s her time…but we are told never to despair, even when the sword is on our neck, like Chizkiyahu turning to the wall…but she’s a goses, and prayers may just artificially keep her alive, like the students praying for their rabbi, blocking the malach hamavet from taking him, until his servant dropped a plate…please God, give her some more time with us…please God, just keep her comfortable for whatever time she has..oh God, I don’t know what’s best for her, you do, please do what’s best for her, but don’t let her suffer, take her with a kiss like Moses…and me God, I know I have not lived up to my potential, I know I have not fully applied the many gifts you bestowed on me in Your service, give me another year, I’ll keep trying to do more to be better to be as “Barry” as I can be, to be a better father/husband/relative/rabbi/leader…”

After all that, I was exhausted.  Emotionally drained.  I needed to take a break before I could continue with reading the Torah portion and praying Musaf.  I really came to appreciate that praying on your own can be very powerful – I could go 100% at my own pace, take a break when needed, not be embarrassed about getting emotional in public (guys often have issues with that).

After regaining my composure, I read the Torah reading, offered my additional Musaf prayer, and went back to mother’s room.

At that point my mother was still conscious and responsive.  It was a beautiful morning, so we took her out into the garden for some fresh air.  As we were sitting in the garden, my nephew Matthew showed up with a Starbucks Frappucino in his hand (lest you think ill of him showing up on Yom Kippur with coffee, he’s not Jewish).  He offered some to my Mom, she said “that looks good,” and started drinking her morning coffee, sitting outside.  I smiled; it felt like my nephew was an angel sent by God to bring my mother her morning coffee, one last time.  I felt perhaps I was being mildly chastised for having written off her ability to enjoy her morning coffee while sitting outdoors!

The rest of the day was mostly spent sitting in her room visiting with friends and family, people offering their own private prayers.  At the close of the day I recited the afternoon prayers and the closing prayers for Yom Kippur, Neilah, with a fresh round of intensity. I blew the shofar with some of my family members present, marking the close of the most spiritually intense Yom Kippur I have ever experienced.  The Baal Shem Tov said the broken heart is the ax that smashes all the locks on the doors of heaven.  Surely God heard my prayers.

My mother was a very strong woman: the next day she started fading out of consciousness, but she stayed with us a while longer – five days, until the next of our holidays in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Sukkot.  The Festival of Booths.  A holiday when we are commanded to “rejoice on our holiday.”  My mother left this world, peacefully, at 2am on Sukkot – perhaps to give me the message to remember to rejoice in her life, to be glad for the many many blessings she brought to my life, and not to focus on the loss.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

3 thoughts on “Yom Kippur Among the Dying

  • Philip Steiner

    Reb Barry,

    My deepest condolences on the loss of your mother, may her memory be for a blessing.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about your last moments with her. Through this you keep and share her memory with us all.

    And the remembrance of your late step-father in yesterday’s posting was just amazing. I do miss your d’varim Torah from your time at Beth Tikvah. May you be granted a long and lucent life, so we can all continue to learn from you!

  • Thanks Philip, give my regards to Linda. Every Sukkot I think of one time in Richmond when we had our sukkah on our balcony, watched the sunset over Vancouver Island, watched the geese flying south, and admired an owl on the roof of the house next door. Truly beautiful (We won’t mention our other year in Richmond when it was so rainy we never managed to eat a full meal in our sukkah! 🙂 ). Come visit us in Israel!

  • I’m sorry to read such sad news. May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


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